U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Was He the Perpetrator or a Bystander? Testing Theories of Unconscious Transference for Eyewitness Identification

NCJ Number
Date Published

This article explores the criminal justice problem of mistaken eyewitness identification; describing the research sample, methodology, and findings regarding participants’ memory, identification accuracy, and innocent bystander familiarity.


Unconscious transference (UT) is a potential explanation for an eyewitness identifying a familiar but innocent suspect from a lineup. The authors conducted a large experiment (N = 31,612) to test three UT theories (automatic processing/familiarity, poor source retrieval, and memory blending) by manipulating memory strength for the perpetrator versus the bystander, as well as their physical similarity. Participants were randomly assigned to view a fair simultaneous lineup containing the perpetrator, the bystander, an innocent suspect never seen before, or both the perpetrator and bystander. The authors found several forms of evidence of UT, but it was much weaker when: (a) the bystander was dissimilar from the perpetrator, and (b) the perpetrator was viewed for longer than the bystander. Both automatic processing/familiarity and poor source retrieval received the most support, with memory blending a distant third. Last, UT harmed the confidence–accuracy relationship. The authors recommend additional eyewitness research involving familiar innocent suspects. (Published Abstract Provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2023